Tom Waits once said he liked people who glue macaroni onto a piece of cardboard and paint it gold. Waits, I bet, would like Bob Wiseman.
Wiseman is most known as the keyboardist and founding member of Blue Rodeo who quit the group in the early 1990s when it stopped being fun for him. Now a solo artist, film composer, music producer and educator, he’s working toward a PhD at the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, in Guelph. Ont.
His book is Music Lessons, a wildly entertaining compilation of hundreds of random blog entries. The content covers off-beat recollections, piano-lesson conversations and out-of-the-blue observations.
One of the stories is about a batch of tomato sauce he was particularity proud of until he realized his daughter preferred ketchup anyhow. I asked Wiseman if one could say the story was a metaphor for his music career. “Sure,” he said, “but only because you can say anything is anything.”
I told him that as a journalist, I aim higher.
Wiseman paused before saying that it interested him as a parent to keep his daughter’s relationship with the world unobstructed by his opinions. “I might put a lot of effort into cooking something,” he said. “I love it when she loves it, but I’m also a realist and I’m trying to find different ways to expand her palate. Sometimes, though, it all comes down to plain pasta.”
My first thought was that Wiseman hadn’t really answered my question. He had, though.
Here’s an excerpt from our long conversation about a book he wrote while not realizing he was writing it. That’s life, one allegory after another.
I have my own idea of what your book is about, but I imagine it’s different than yours. So, how do you see it?
It’s about looking at the intersections between the different music things that I do, and seeing how they’re connected. But I don’t write because I wanted to make a book. I write because it’s an exciting, useful process.
You’re talking about writing your blog, yes?
Right. When ECW Press asked me to put the blog out as a book, I said it was already out. I put it online everyday. I have these views that have interested me all my life. Zen stories, Sufi stories, stories in mysticism. They lead you to see that everything is connected. Everything in the universe, from a certain point of view, is alive. It’s not easy to put into words. But I can put into words a lot of the musical things that happened in my life.
Can we see Music Lessons as life lessons?
For sure. And music is the thing I use for the life lessons.
You tell a great story about the late Tragically Hip singer-lyricist Gord Downie. How did you two meet?
I met him in Toronto in the late 1980s, outside my dentist’s office. At that point, Blue Rodeo was still bigger than the Tragically Hip. But I knew who he was and he knew who I was. He said nice things about my first record, Wet Water. I was flattered. In the small way that we would get to know each other, there was a a lot of mutual respect.
What was your respect for him based on?
I think he realized that even if you’re in the eye of the hurricane, it’s important to be an ordinary person instead of believing the press you get. Some people, they get celebrated in some way in our cultural setting and they believe it. That’s dangerous. You need to have your own sense of whether you’re hitting the mark or not. If you believe the sycophants, that’s the end of you having a real relationship with your artistic generation. He had that real relationship.
For the book, 5,000 blog entrees were culled to about 500. What was the process when it came to putting them in order?
I told the editors they could order it any way they wanted. I decided to let their investment be their creativity too. I’d already generated the content. I didn’t need to worry about the details.
The book ends with a story about an early Blue Rodeo gig. Why was that chosen?
You mean the one about CBGB and drummer Cleave Anderson?
Don’t you now how your own book ends?
No. And I love that. You can’t control what people read into things. There’s no organization involved with that story being the last one. It’s just a nice memory.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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